Letter from Charles Sumner to John Bright (1865)

No study questions

No related resources

Dear Mr Bright,

I have yr good & most suggestive letter. I concur in it substantially. A practical difficulty is this; can Emancipation be carried out without using the lands of the slave-masters. We must see that the freedmen are established on the soil & that they may become proprietors.

From the beginning I have regarded confiscation only as ancillary to Emancipation. The great plantations, which have been so many nurseries of the rebellion, must be broken up, & the freedmen must share the pieces.

It looks as if we were on the eve of another agitation. I insist that the rebel States shall not come back except on the footing of the Decltn of Indep. with all persons equal before the law, & govt. founded on the consent of the governed. In other words, there shall be no discrimination on account of color. If all whites vote, then must all blacks; but there shall be no limitation of suffrage for one more than the other.

It is sometimes said “what–let the freedmen yesterday a slave vote?” I am inclined to think that there is more harm in refusing than in conceding the franchise. It is said that they are as intelligent as the Irish just arrived.

But the question has become immensely practical in this respect. Without their votes, we cannot establish stable govts. in the rebel states. Their votes are as necessary as their musquets. Of this I am satisfied. Without them, the old enemy will reappear &, under the forms of law, take possession of the govts.–choose magistrates & officers–&, in alliance with the Northern democracy, put us all in peril again, postpone the day of tranquility, & menace the national credit by assailing the national debt. To my mind, the nation is now bound by self-interest–aye, self-defence–to be thoroughly just.

The Declaration of Indep. has pledges which have never been redeemed. We must redeem them, as least as regards the rebel states which have fallen under our jurisdiction.

Mr Lincoln is slow in accepting truths. I have reminded him that if he would say the word we might settle this question promptly & rightly. He hesitates.

Meanwhile I felt it my duty to oppose his scheme of govt. in Louisiana, which for the present is defeated in Congress. Chief Justice Chase yesterday pronounced an opinion of the Sup. Ct declaring the whole scheme “illegal & void” from the beginning; so that it fares no better in court than in congress. Mr Chase & myself have always concurred in opinion on this question. With the habit of deference here to the Sup. Ct. I anticipate much from this opinion. Substantially it affirms the conclusion which I adopted three years ago, sometimes called “the territorial theory.”

That has been much misunderstood in Europe. It has been supposed sometimes as a menace of subjugation. Nothing further from my mind–at least in any offensive sense. I felt that the rebel region must for a while pass under the jurisdiction of Congress, in order to set up the necessary safeguards for the future; & I have labored to this end.

Nothing has been heard of Sherman for weeks,–but Mr Stanton has no anxiety about him. He will re-appear in North Carolina. Grant is very cheerful. But for the moment the curtain is down. It may lift any day.

I send you the Resolutions on Reciprocity & Lake Armaments, as they passed the House, & as amended by me. The Italics are mine; & that is the form adopted.

You will see from the date of the House Resolution on Armaments how long I held it back. I was unwilling to take the step, until the outrages on the Lakes seemed to shew its necessity.

I came into the proposition to give the notice to terminate the Reciprocity Treaty, because I was satisfied that we could not negotiate for its modification, on a footing of equality unless our hands were untied. You will see this in my speech. I make this remark in reply to yr suggestion on the subject.

Congress has separated in good humor, without anxiety for the future, & indeed confident that we are on the verge of peace. My desire is that England should do something to take out the bitterness from the American heart–before the war closes[.] Help. I owe Cobden, & shall write him next.

Ever Yours, &nbps; Charles Sumner

Source: Beverly Wilson Palmer (ed.), Selected Letters of Charles Sumner, vol. 2 (Boston, 1990), p. 273.

Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.